Anyone who knows me, knows I carry a deep, dark secret. No matter how old I get, I can’t shake the gaming jones. I was introduced to video games in the mid-70’s through a neighbor’s Pong machine, used my Machiavellian skills of coercion on neighborhood kids to invite me to sleep over so I could co-opt their Atari 2600 (with the faux wood paneling that was to the 70’s as ground effects were to the 90’s), and in the 80’s discovered I’d never remember the combination to my high school locker so long as UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT B A B A SELECT START was tattooed upon my neural tapestry.
These days, I have much less time for gaming than I once did, but I have refused to surrender it completely. When the house grows still and bedtime is close at hand, I usually fire up a game to unwind. Andi finds that thought incredibly ironic as she feels her tension level rise when she plays – but I’m just the opposite. Saving the universe seems much less taxing than filing a TPS report or obtaining requisition authorization for a new frame relay.
So for this list of favorite things, I decided to migrate away from movie endings and films that made this grown man cry, and focus on my top 5 favorite video games of all time. As always, feel free to use the Comments section to add your list. If you don’t have 5 – then let me know your 3 or your 1. Bear in mind – this list is console specific. Spare me your Dooms and Duke Nukems.
5. Shadow of the Colossus
Late last year, as I was immersed in my real-life quest for an XBox 360, I stumbled across this gem – released for Sony’s Playstation 2. The game can be summed up in two words – boss fights – those end level battle royales that often charge a player with taking down some hulking behemoth in order to gain a power-up or open passage to the next world. Shadow of the Colossus takes that staple of gaming – some might argue a tired and worn cliche – and makes something wholly unique, haunting and beautiful.
Colossus opens with your character, a young knight with no name, pulling a horse through a lonely, desolate land. Draped over the horse is the lifeless body of a young woman. Using drab, muted graphics and a viewpoint that stretches for hundreds of miles of digital landscape, the player feels completely lost in an alien landscape. The knight comes upon a massive castle – that seeming bursts from the Earth – its sharp precipice pointing accusingly towards the sky. The knight enters this edifice and makes his way to a sanctuary. There he places the woman’s body on an alter and is soon startled by a great, booming voice from the heavens. The voice tells the knight, that within this cursed land, there are 13 great colossi that guard various areas. If he can hunt them down and kill each beast, then new life will be granted to this woman. Grabbing a small sword, the knight heads off on horseback to hunt each of these golems.
And that’s where the game begins. The player moves his avatar through this world, seeking out each colossus. While there is a fair bit of platforming required to find each colossus (think Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia) – the meat of the game lies in the battles with these creatures. These are epic throw downs – with each colossus taking a different form and requiring the player to think through the right way to tackle the creatures. Some of them are multiple stories tall and all boast a weak point that must be reached, leading the player to grab onto the creature and clamber over it’s body, while it desperately struggles to shake you off. The battles are intense and very puzzle oriented –playing out like those satisfying boss fights from The Legend of Zelda series.
When you finally do bring one of the creatures down, the player feels this amazing sense of accomplishment, as every skill is exercised and tested. Button mashing doesn’t work here. Each boss takes a well orchestrated plan.
Buoyed by stellar production values – especially amazing sound design – the game does a great job of imparting an emotional attachment to these majestic creatures. Each one is so awe-inspiring – some appear as gentle giants – that when you do take one down and it crashes to the Earth in pained slo-mo – you can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt.
This all comes to bear in an expert climax that reveals a major twist to the story and also ties in quite nicely with another underrated gem from the same studio, Ico. I’ve played both – and while they initially feel like distant cousins – the closing moments of Colossus reveal a more intimate relationship.
Earlier this year, Roger Ebert posted comments on his website where he decried video games as an art form. Of course, Roger may have had Galaga and Pac-Man in mind – as this medium has grown in its story-telling abilities over the last decade. Anyway, amidst the flurry of responses sent in by impassioned fans, Shadow of the Colossus became a common example in the argument for video games as art. If the essence of art is the ability for a work to move one, to touch one, to coax a visceral reaction – then I agree wholeheartedly as Shadow of the Colossus made an indelible connection with me.
4. Metroid Prime
The Metroid series stands in lock step with The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers as games that are just pitch-perfect in execution. All three launched in the 80’s and helped solidify Nintendo as the premiere publisher of A-list titles. All three have seen their roots flourish and have lead to numerous sequels with each subsequent installment serving to flesh out their respective universe and innovate their game styles.
As a kid I remember shoveling driveways with a buddy for a good 5 hours during some brutal January snowstorm in order to make enough scratch to head down to the local K-Mart and score a copy of Metroid. This was released in the early days of the NES and it looked so different from the conventional one-screen fare (Balloon Fight!) that dotted the gaming landscape. Once I applied my grip, I didn’t relax until I had seen Ridley, Kraid and the Mother Brain to hell. There was something about the game’s massive world – which encouraged exploration – that charged the adventurous spirit in me. I’m much happier looking for clues, solving puzzles and navigating mazes over blasting away space bats, any day of the week. Both this and the Zelda series understand the proper ingredients to mix in order to get to that sweet spot.
Anyway – in 2002 – Metroid was updated to the third dimension with the release of Metroid Prime for the Nintendo Gamecube. While on the surface, the 2D platforming Metroid appeared to have been retrofitted into a First Person Shooter shell – the game actually revealed itself to be more of a first person adventure. Think Myst with better controls and the ability to blast away at critters every once and awhile.
Like my number 5 choice Colossus, Metroid Prime drops your avatar, Samus Aran, on a desolate planet and charges the player with unraveling a mystery involving the disappearance of this planet’s indigenous race. The classic Metroid formula is skillfully brought to the third dimension – where the player negotiates through one large sprawling world – seeking clues, solving puzzles, parsing out pieces of the story, battling boss creatures and gaining new weapons and abilities that grant access to previously unreachable areas. While the latter appears to be a stale convention (get a hammer – go back and pound those posts) it never seems to get old to me – as just when I’m at a loss of where to go next, I receive the tools that open up some fresh new avenues to explore.
I’ve always looked at the Metroid and Zelda series as kissing cousins. Both feature large temples or dungeons brimming with brain busters, both throw epic boss battles at you that require mental and digital agility, and both dole out weapons and power-ups at crucial intervals that expertly goose your drive to keep going – if only to see one more area.
I call these games my Thanksgiving games as I’ve found there is nothing more enjoyable than curling up on a late Fall evening and applying 66,000 cc’s of adrenaline to counteract all the triptofan coursing through your system. Plus, Nintendo is infamous for dropping one of these titles around Thanksgiving (for the X-Mas rush) – so it feels like each holiday always finds me immersed in some grand adventure.
3. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
The Metal Gear series is another title that has been around since the 8-bit days – although this is one game that has truly benefited from advanced technology. I played Hideo Kojima’s original Metal Gear on the NES back in 1987 and realized back then that his story telling was hampered by the hardware.
In 1998, the elements settled in place nicely for Kojima, as he released the very cinematic Metal Gear Solid for the Sony Playstation. Releasing on the heels of Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil, Metal Gear solidified the argument that the line between games and films would continue to blur. The game also introduced full voice acting – with David Hayter bringing series hero Solid Snake to vibrant life.
For my money, the 2001 Playstation 2 sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty goes down in history as one of the most engaging games I have ever played. That’s no small feat considering the numerous areas this game could have suffered a misstep – notably in Kojima’s shocking twist to the game’s extended prologue that effectively removes Solid Snake from the majority of the game. Many fanboys whined that they were forced to play as Raiden (no doubt – the same cry-babies who were all up in a tizzy over those Arbiter sequences in Halo 2.) While I can somewhat empathize – if given the choice wouldn’t every one choose Han over Luke – I thought the decision, from a pure story telling perspective, was truly ballsy. By leaving Snake adrift – fate unknown – after the game’s initial oil tanker episode – the story gets infused with some compelling dramatic elements. As Raiden is being briefed before his incursion to the Big Shell (which terrorists have hijacked), rumors abound that Solid Snake is the leader of this revolt. That adds a good amount of tension for a large portion of the game.
Finally Snake does surface – in the persona of Iroquois Plissken (Kojima nicely plays homage to the original Snake he got his inspiration from). From there on out, the game twists and turns – opening a myriad of questions (Who are the Patriots? What the hell is the La-Li-Le-Lo-Lu?), offering some killer boss battles (the harrier jet is a fave of mine) and sprinkling a host of Easter Eggs (including Sean’s favorite sequence involving the first FPS golden shower on record).
Like the best movies, MGS2:SOL stays with you. It tickles that inquisitive bone in me that loves cliffhangers and conspiracy plots and intrigue. I’m a sucker for serial dramas (Lost, 24) and this game offers up an abundance of riches for my curious brain.
2. Tomb Raider
The original Tomb Raider is another example of my Thanksgiving game faves. The game was released for the PS1 the day before Thanksgiving 1996. I picked it up that Wednesday night on my way to meet some co-workers for a pre-holiday beer at our local watering hole, Berringers. When I got back to my place in Mansfield, I decided to boot up the game and play for a few moments.
Then comes the dawn.
I played the damn thing all night. I slept a few hours that morning (to recharge for the family dinner) then played some more before departing to Carver, MA. When I returned home that evening, I booted it up again and set forth putting Lara through the paces.
Games like these – games that reach in and grasp every second of your free time – games that haunt your waking life as you mentally play through a rough patch and figure out the solution miles away from your TV – these games come along so few and far between.
The original Tomb Raider was that game. Sure, the game rose in popularity buoyed by Lara’s assets, but good looks can carry a girl only so far. It’s what’s underneath that matters and this girl showed she had a solid foundation to hold up that fabulous rack. Being a fan of adventure games and movies, Tomb Raider tickled that desire to explore. This was the Indiana Jones game we never got. There was just such a sense of awe in exploring these caverns, turning a corner and spying a 600 foot drop off. “How the hell do I get down there?” – I thought. That was the fun of Tomb Raider. Puzzling out the path from Point A to B.
Tomb Raider also made excellent use of sound design. Although the caverns were constructed with some pretty blocky textures – the ambient noises (booming echoes, earth shifting, water dripping) went a long way towards selling the illusion. Music was introduced in measured bursts – aimed at punctuating a major discovery – that like the triumphant Zelda theme, served as a little reward for all your hard work.
There were also some amazing set pieces. I’ll never forget wading through one particularly tight crevice that opened on a lush subterranean valley (adorned with foliage and rivers). As I was walking around – just taking in all the cool little details the designers dropped in (such as a frayed suspension bridge hanging 70 feet above my head – “Hmmm, I wonder how I get up there?”) all of a sudden a rampaging T-Rex comes charging at me. (“Hmmm, How the hell did THAT get in here?”)
Anyway, the sequels were a gradual sequence of diminishing returns, although the latest Tomb Raider Legend – which returned creator Toby Gard to the fold – seems to be back on track. This old girl has got some kick in her yet.
1. The Legend of Zelda – series
I can’t pick one. Every game in this series has held me completely spellbound. A new installment seems to come out once a decade (I know it’s more frequent than that – but that’s what it feels like.) When they do come out, it’s like that little triumphant audio cue you get when Link triggers a secret door or unlocks a chest. You feel like you really located buried treasure.
Of all my pixel-perfect memories, none stands taller than the day I encountered
The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Before Zelda, with its strange new landscape of magic and mystery, games were relegated to the ‘Plumber Jumps on Winged Turtle’ genre of electronic entertainment (an obvious byproduct of the 70’s French New Wave movement in cinema). Now, before me, lay a gleaming gold cartridge.
“Gold? Aren’t cartridges typically dull gray? What is this remarkable treasure?”
Legend has it, a pre-pubescent Flava Flav was so enthralled, he melted 16 of them down to form that marvelous grill of his.
Anyway – that game – with it’s mythic locales, brutal boss fights, and most importantly – fiendishly clever dungeon puzzles – drained many a day of it’s hourglass sand. You produce a new Zelda game and I don’t care where I am (work, grocery shopping, neurosurgery) – I’m dropping everything and heading back to Hyrule.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Zelda games revolve around the adventures of a
young elf-boy named Link, who in each game is called upon to save the princess, fight the evil demon Ganon and save the world from imminent doom. The story is old hat and after 5 major console releases could be argued as stale – but there is something in its telling that continually keeps each new adventure fresh.
I think the into to 2003’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker captured my feelings very well. This elegant introductory passage, told through a mix of subtle sight and sound (flashes of wood carvings scored to a medieval arrangement of the classic Zelda themes), tells the tale of the legend of princess Zelda. This four minute sequence effortlessly recaps the events of the prior (seemingly unrelated) games, weaving a dense tapestry depicting this perpetual dance between good and evil – setting the stage for one final showdown.
Viewing this simple cut scene (composed of still images apparently ripped from some ancient text – completely devoid of the flashy CGI that dominates so many other games narratives) provoked one good sensation after another, culminating in a moment of such sublime simplicity that it sent a shiver coursing down my spine – goosing me with nostalgia of the good times of old and priming me for the grand adventure that lay ahead. In it, we spied a simple wood carving of a young boy pulling a sword from a stone and holding it aloft – while blinding light poured from the heavens – backed by the faint stirring of the triumphant Zelda theme
This fall, fans get a twofer in the dual release of The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess (Wii) and The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (DS). Don’t tell anyone, but I’m quitting my day job.